This week the Max Group's inaugural bartender competition kicked off Wednesday, September 30, featuring a select group representing some of South Florida's bartending elite. They competed in the first event shaking, stirring, pouring, and outright showing off in their attempts to make the evening's best cocktail.
Max’s Social House general manager Bob Higginbotham emceed the competition, judged by South Florida restauranteur and Pizza Fusion CEO Vaughan Dugan, Delray Beach resident and hospitality industry veteran Danielle Linscott, and president of the Palm Beach County chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild Rob Husted.
Around 9:45 p.m., with much ado, each competitor emerged from the already-rowdy crowd at Max's Social House, making his or her way to their place behind the bar; the first barman showdown featured Delray Beach-based Scott Dauss of newly-opened American Free House in Delray Beach, Bobby Brown from Boynton Beach's Sweetwater Bar & Grill, and Tiffini Grant of Apeiro in Delray Beach.
For the first round, the rules of engagement dictated each bartender must prepare a classic craft cocktail within five minutes using a mystery spirit. This week, it was all about the gin — specifically Anchor Distilling's Old Tom gin, a recipe that was popular in 18th-century England but has been experiencing a resurgence of late. It is best defined as sweeter than London Dry, but slightly drier than the juniper-heavy Dutch Jenever.
The drink to make: an aviation, a classic cocktail made with gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette, and lemon juice served straight up.
Brown, a Sweetwater alum and co-founder of Craft Cartel (the catering arm of Sweetwater Bar & Grill), was first to show his stuff. A pillar of intensity behind the bar, he exuded an impenetrable wall of calm, cool, and collected once the countdown began. First order of business was the garnish as he feverishly sliced and diced a lemon into pretty yellow slivers. The key to his success was frequent tasting, he says, especially when using brands with flavor profiles he wasn't familiar with.
Dauss — formerly the barman for establishments like Fort Lauderdale's Tipsy Boar, Tarpon Bend, and American Social — was up next, dressed in nothing but a blue-and-white striped overall number (complimented with the requisite bartender beard, slash of tattoos, and some super swag). His entry proved to be more of a show than his work behind the bar, however. After pouring a tequila shot for a few lovely ladies in front of him, he lost precious moments when he didn't prepare enough juice for each judge on the first go-around, which may have helped give him the axe in the end.
Grant was last. Despite a spilled shaker and a few technical difficulties, the first-time competitor kept it real and was applauded for "keeping a smile in the middle of a shit storm" with her easy-going demeanor — something all three judges appreciated — before moving on to the second round alongside Brown.
For round two, remaining competitors Grant and Brown went head-to-head for the final 30-minutes of cocktail showmanship. Before they got down to business, the final two secret ingredients were revealed alongside the Old Tom gin from the previous round: a potent and herbaceous absinthe, and a bottle of cold-pressed vegetable Detox Retox juice laced with ginger and kale from nearby Delray Beach Juice Buzz.
The goal here was to create as many cocktails as possible using all three mystery ingredients, as well as the use of the full bar and — if so inclined — even the kitchen. With a half-hour to go, both bartenders got to work delivering their own interpretation of each ingredient.
Grant showed her stuff to the trio of judges with two cocktails, beginning with a simple sipper — a combination of Old Tom gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and that Juice Buzz concoction garnished with fresh mint and served over crushed ice. Her second factored in the absinthe, which she used sparingly before combining a dash of grapefruit juice, lime juice, and muddled sugar with the gin, served straight up.
Brown stole the show, however, whipping up three drinks within the 30-minute marker. That included the "Panty Dropper" — so dubbed by judge Linscott — a mixture of Ramazotti amaro, absinthe, and fresh lemon juice. The last drink of the evening by Brown was also a favorite with the judge's panel, a more complicated cocktail that earned rave reviews (and one of the only "excellent" marks of the night from Dugan), a blend of Juice Buzz's Detox Retox complimented with ginger shrub, lemon juice, saline solution, and honey water.
"My final drink was an extremely challenging cocktail. Instead of running away from the powerful flavor of that juice, I decided to push them forward," said Brown. "So I used a ginger shrub to pull out the ginger, a saline solution to add a salty, sharp note, and the citrus to enhance all those flavors, and the honey water helped to calm all that power."
Be sure to tune in next week when Bar Brawls continues into week two with The Cooper's David Bouchard, 32 East's John Fitzpatrick, and El Camino's Jess Hart. Who will be the victor in week two's battle? Guess you'll just have to go and see for yourself.
Bar Brawls will be held Wednesday nights at 9:30 p.m. at Max’s Social House from September 30 through December 9. Admission is $10. Max's Social House is located at Delray Beach. Visit the Facebook event page.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.